30 June 2011

Superfast jellyfish. Superfast jellyfish.

A few years ago I went through a Penguin phase, not the apparently-Christian-mates-for-life-walks-five-hundred-miles-just-to-fall-down-at-your-door flightless bird kind, but the altogether more interesting book kind. I'm a sucker for good design and frequently fall into judging, and purchasing, a book by its cover, and thus ended up with a collection of classic SciFi by John Wyndham.

You probably know Wyndham, if indeed you do, for his curious mix of Home County Britishness and post-apocalyptic nightmares, where the world has ended but everybody is jolly nice about the whole thing, riding it out with a stiff upper lip and cucumber sandwiches. Take 'Day of the Triffids', where bioengineered sentient plants slowly stalk the battered remnants of a society turned blind by a meteor shower, or 'The Chrysalids', a tale of Christian fundamentalists and mutant telepaths in the post-apocalyptic feudalism of, um, the Canadian province of Labrador, or perhaps you may be more familiar with 'The Midwich Cuckoos', a cautionary story wherein a group of other-worldly identical twins are born simultaneously to women in a small rural English village with unnerving consequences. All very unsettling I'm sure you'll agree.

But I'm almost certain that even if you have read these fine works you are unlikely to have perused perhaps his most chilling work, 'The Kraken Wakes', his 1953 prophetic tale of melting ice caps, rising oceans, drowned cities and political conflicts over remaining resources, all caused by giant jellyfish determined to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth. "All very believable", I hear you say, "except for the bit about the jellyfish, now that's just nonsense."

Not so fast, dear reader, for word reaches us today of an incident at Torness nuclear power station in Scotland, where the entire plant was forced to shut down earlier this week because of a unusually large swarm of jellyfish that had became lodged in the cooling pipes that funnel seawater into the reactor, blocking those pipes completely. Without the cooling effect of the seawater a reactor quickly faces meltdown, as happened recently in Fukushima.

"Aha," you say, "but one incident does not an apocalyptic attack make", or words to that effect.

Indeed, but alas this is not an isolated incident. Less than a week before the Torness incident, the Number 2 reactor at the Shimane Nuclear plant in Japan was attacked in an identical manner by another swarm of jellyfish. In 2008 the Diablo Canyon plant in California was attacked by a swarm, in 2006 swarms clogged the pipes of Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland and the pipes for two reactors at Chubu Electric Power Company's plant in Hamaoka, Japan, and in 2005 the Oskarshamn plant in southeastern Sweden was shut down by another swarm. In 1999 the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant northwest of Tokyo was attacked and in 1998 and 1993 it was the turn of the St Lucie plant in Florida.

Concerned yet?

Now, even if you discount the theory of a malevolent undersea menace determined to wreak havoc on a helpless land-lubbing adversary, the fact that nuclear reactors around the globe seem to share an exhaust-port type design flaw that makes them both attractive to and vulnerable to swarms of jellyfish, swarms that look set to increase in size and frequency as both sea levels and ocean temperatures continue to rise, should fill you with a certain level of unease about ongoing British plans to increase the number of plants by eight between now and 2025, five of which would have a direct impact on the East coast of Ireland should anything go wrong.

Its not the actual threat of jellyfish that alarms me (or rather, its not just the actual threat of jellyfish), more the existential threat of the unknowable and unpredictable that the jellyfish represent. Giant swarms of jellyfish attacking your cooling pipes are probably not the type of thing plant designers were thinking about when building their plants, and yet it seems to happen frequently enough that they are not unique incidents and each time the effect is the same, the plant needs to be shut down or risk meltdown. So no doubt the next generation of plants will have better jellyfish defenses. Or earthquake defenses. Or tsunami defenses. But each new design is only compensating for the unanticipated disasters of the past and will never be able to protect themselves against the unanticipated disasters of the future because they are, well, unanticipated. Every imaginable precaution may have been taken with the construction and running of current plants, but that is of little use when the unimaginable happens.

And it has, and it will.

Unfortunately believing that you have anticipated every possible scenario makes you all the more vulnerable to bad decision making when something arrises outside of your contingency plans, just ask the doomed staff of the first Death Star or their colleagues at NewsCorp who bought MySpace for $580 million six years ago and sold it yesterday for $35 million. Oops. This is my primary concern about nuclear power, its vulnerability to corporate overconfidence, "unknown unknowns", and the catastrophic effects when the two meet and stuff inevitably goes pear-shaped.

Nuclear power is just not worth the risks, any risks.

Especially jellyfish. We have to be lucky every time, they only have to be lucky once.

When Jellyfish attack
Torness, Scotland, June 2011
Shimane, Japan, June 2011
California, USA, October 2008
Maryland, USA, July 2006
Hamaoka, Japan, July 2006
Oskarshamn, Sweden, August 2005
Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, Japan, July 1999
Florida, USA, October 1998
Florida, USA, September 1993

At least the Germans take the jellyfish threat seriously, they voted today to shut down all their nuclear power plants by 2022. Hooray! Unlike the UK who plan to build another eight within the same timeframe. Boo!

The Kraken Wakes - John Wyndham, more prophetic than Nostradamus and The Kaiser Chiefs put together.

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At 4:30 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

amazing post. amazing. a cogent and persuasive agrument against risking nuclear power. you should send this to every anti-nuclear organisation/magazine out there, and, probably more usefully, to the pro-nuclear organisations. try the Intl Atomic Energy Agency for starters. although of course they're not pro-nuclear, they are entirely neutral.


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